Competition Brewing

The vast majority of us as homebrewers brew the beer that we want to drink at home.  The vast majority of us are happy with the results of our work.  The overwhelming majority of the people we give our beer to at home love it and want some more (because, Hey! Free Beer!).  We get this rush of enthusiasm for the beer and decide to enter it into a competition.  The results come back with a litany of flaws, and our shoulders slump and move on from that beer to another.

Brewing competitions are great ways to get feedback on your beer.  However, sometimes you get feedback you may not have been expecting.  This article focuses on competition brewing, what to expect and some keys & cheats for success.

Styles

It is of utmost importance that you become intimately familiar with the BJCP Style Guidelines when determining what category to enter your beer into.  Being aware of what to expect in terms of flavor, aroma, color, etc. goes a long way when determining what category your beer fits into.  There have been many times where I brewed a beer that was midway between a pale ale and an IPA.  Unfortunately, in those instances, the chances of scoring high are difficult when placed in either category. 

Remember that, regardless of what you intended to brew, it only matters what the judge’s perception is.  If you brewed a barrel-aged imperial stout, and there is no perceptible wood in the flavor or aroma, then your beer won’t score well in that category and would be better placed in the Imperial Stout category.  When deciding on what category to enter your beer, sit down and taste your beer while looking at the BJCP guidelines.  Decide which category your beer fits best after tasting, not based on what you attempted to brew.

When brewing to style, you should be looking to create a beer that “checks all the boxes” when it comes to what the style guidelines say.  It should look, smell and taste like what the style guidelines indicate.  Take a look at proven recipes to see what typical ingredients and ratios for that style are common.  A good resource for that is the website of the American Homebrewers Association (https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/).  The AHA has a database with recipes of all styles of winners of each year’s National Homebrew Competition (If you’re not an AHA member yet, this alone is worth the cost of admission).  The BJCP guidelines will also give a ton of useful information to steer you on the path to a solid recipe.  A good example of not checking all the boxes was when I entered an American Amber Ale into a competition that had no caramel malt in the grain bill.  I used other means of getting the color.  So when you looked at the beer, it had the copper/amber color you’d expect.  But when you tasted the beer, it had no residual sweetness and scored low.

When looking to brew to style, a good approach for competitions is to push the upper limits of one of the categories such as gravity or bitterness.  Remember that your Munich Helles is going to be tasted next to all the other Munich Helles entries.  Make your beer standout by pushing that gravity or adding some malt complexity.  Alternatively, use a nontraditional hop.  The idea is to be appropriate to style, but stand out.

One last thing on styles:  There are a couple categories that are less populated in homebrew competitiions.  Categories like IPA tend to get the lion’s share of entries.  Other categories can sometimes have just a few entries, which might give you more of a chance of winning (if that is your goal for entering).

BJCP v. “People’s Choice” Competitions

There is a vast difference between a sanctioned BJCP competition and a People’s Choice competition.  The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) works to promote a better understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the beer styles available (https://www.bjcp.org).  BJCP sanctioned competitions will judge your beer to the standards of the accepted beer styles.  Your beer will be held to and judged by those standards.  Most regional competitions and those within homebrew clubs are held to these standards.  However, there are many local competitions that are more People’s Choice where the favorite beer wins regardless of style.  Competitions held at breweries and beer festivals typically use a people’s choice format.  Sometimes a brewer or experienced beer judges will play a role, and scoresheets may be used.  However, the tasting and judging typically isn’t held to the same standard as a BJCP competition.

When entering a People’s Choice competition, rather than focusing on style categories, think of a style that is people-pleasing, then add something to give it an edge, whether that’s an ingredient, a name, a label or a story.  Sell your beer.  If the judging is done on sight, engage with folks.  If the judging is done separately, make your beer stand out on it’s own.

Timing

Each year, one of the great local homebrew competitions for us is the Southern New England Regional Homebrew Competition (SNERHC).  Every year, there is always one or two homebrewers who seem to place in multiple categories.  One year, I tried to accomplish this, and brewed various styles throughout the year.  It was a disaster.  The majority of my entries had flaws, mostly related to being past their prime.  In brewing for competitions, you need to ensure that you schedule your brewday(s) to allow for proper maturation of the beer.  What I ran into was that (a) at least half my beers were past their prime, and (b) I focused on volume of entries and feel short on quality.

Last year, I was a judge at SNERHC.  In the afternoon, I was assigned to judge the New England IPA category.  Unfortunately, none of the entries met the requirements for the style.  Most of them had passed their prime (if they were ever enjoyable in the first place).  Certain styles are unfortunately not shelf-stable and lose their identifying characteristics very quickly.  This is a style that would have to be brewed, fermented and packaged just prior to the competition in order to be judged as it should and possibly receive a favorable score.

One last thing on competitions.  Brew the beer that you like to drink.  Don’t steer your brewing schedule based on when competitions fall.  While entering them in to compete and get feedback is great, you can lose yourself in that and get away from the reason why you started this in the first place.

Cheers everyone, and Happy Brewing!

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